A Question of Colour

by Captain S H Waters
HAC Journal - Autumn 2005

‘……. And moreover’ continued the well oiled member (in the Sutling Room after dinner) who obviously disapproved of all activities of the arme blanche, and particularly the local arm, namely the Light Cavalry, ‘why can’t you have them all the same colour ‘? I assure him that we were all very similar in looks, some more Latino than others, and anyhow we are a broad ‘church’: there is no bar to joining the Light Cavalry. Gender might be a problem, but it is unlikely that any sane lady would want to strip off with lots of elderly smelly Cavalrymen, particularly in our present changing rooms. With one or two of the officers, now that might be different!

‘No, you fool, he went on in the same vain; the horses I mean’. Ah!

‘I could’ I responded, in my usual benign way, as when dealing with tricky customers, ‘if you, or the Court’, would give me a hundred thousand pounds, then they could all be the same size, and colour. I had just recently calculated that if we had been bombed on the last Lord Mayor’s Show we would have needed to find 123,000 to replace the horses on parade, which did include the generous loans from the Vice President, and others, for that day. We do nothing on the cheap in the arme blanche.

Dear reader, as you probably know there is no horse of a bad colour, but like girls, some are better than others, if you know what I mean. So next time you observe the Regiment’s finest, in full Mounted Review, whilst you rest on your rifle butt, musket, or pike, you might, to pass the time, like to know a little more about the whys and wherefores of the colour of horses.

Some Regiments of the British Army do, or did, go for a specific colour, and as a result acquired nicknames that, in time, became secondary titles by which they are still known. The best known two examples must be ‘The Queens Bays’- 2nd Dragoon Guards; and ‘the Greys’, or ‘Royal Scots Greys’ - 2nd Dragoons. Other units had batteries, or squadrons, as bay, grey, black or brown, or, as in the Royal Horse Artillery, the ‘Chestnut Troop’. Today sub- sections of the ‘King’s Troop’ are by colour; chestnut, bright bay, and brown/black, I believe. Hard work for the remount officer! As Yeomanry Cavalry, somewhat under funded, we are forced to take anything that will stand still on parade, regardless of colour, and indeed size.

In the past Colonels could choose what colour they wanted, if they were prepared to pay for the privilege. Cavalry trumpeters, but not Horse gunners, usually have grey horses, for easy identification, and the Drum Horse usually is ‘coloured’, either skewbald or piebald; brown and white, or black and white; a colour of which the Arabs say of el begaa, ‘fly from him like the plaque, he is the brother of a cow!’! Likewise the South American Indians said that the piebald was made by God for carrying packs. However if Western movies are any guide, the coloured horse was admired by the Red Indians, and also by the true Romany Gypsy of today. Another more important admirer is our own Captain General, who whilst attempting to breed replacement Drums Horses for her Life Guards, has bred some very decent coloured horses, with no small success in the show ring.

Much of the folklore relating to colour is handed down to us from the desert Arabs who loved their horses as their children, and so much they would have them in their tents with them, resting on fine carpets. The Koran teaches us, “Who feeds and looks after a horse for the triumph of religion is making a magnificent loan to God." Moussa, conqueror of Africa and Spain, noted that those which endured the weariness and miseries of war best were the solid bays, that is chocolate brown with black points; this view was held also by Thomas Blundeville in the late 16th century. I would agree with them both. The horse with a white forehead, or star, the most blessed, and those with white legs well regarded, although this latter view might be at odds with the experienced English Stud groom, or Farrier, of today, particularly in a wet hunting country. The white horn of the hoof being weaker, and softer, and the white hair prone to ‘mud fever’. The black was thought to be the most spirited, and it was generally held by the desert folk that the swiftest was the chestnut, which the Americans call a sorrel. Although today’s horsemen, might think twice about buying a chestnut mare, as horses of this colour, just like red headed girls, can sometimes be a bit ‘sharp, or hot!

Again we must go to the Arabs for guidance on the dun, a sort of pale donkey brown colouration. This and the Isabella, or palamino, they had no time for, calling them ‘green’. However the true dun, with black points and dorsal stripe is a primitive characteristic originating in early equidae such as the Tarpan and the Asiatic Horse, and without exception these are tough of constitution and hardy to a degree.

Although the grey, which generally goes ‘white’ with age, is thought not to withstand the heat well he is well regarded in Arabia. White is considered the colour suitable for princes. In mythology they draw the chariots of the Gods, and were also used as the ultimate religious sacrifice. Thus the Colonel rides a ‘grey’ at the head of the Regiment, on the Lord Mayor’s Show; by chance or design, I know not.

Should you wish the opportunity to examine a horse more closely, this option is easily available to you. Just sign up for a Cavalry Course at Flemish Farm Windsor; there under expert Household Cavalry instruction you can get very close to him!

Whilst getting to know your horse look for a ‘Prophet’s thumb mark’ on him. This is a genetic imperfection that appears as a minor indentation or depression usually in a fleshy area, on the rump or neck. The Arab horse trader will tell you a different story whilst you haggle over the price, in the bazaar. Should the horse you are attempting to purchase have such a thing he will draw attention to it. This sign will ensure good fortune to the owner and a peaceful death in one’s own bed, he will assure you.

If pressed further he will tell you the legend. “The prophet Mohammed , to escape his enemies, rode from Mecca to Medina. On this journey he rode four mares, each to the point of exhaustion. As he left each one he pressed his thumb into her flesh, saying “ you , and yours, will wear my mark, forever, in return for your great service to me’’.

The Irish call it the ‘Devil’s Thumb Mark’. It is also interesting to note that Thoroughbreds, and those horses with thoroughbred blood, which stems from the Arab, are the one’s who usually carry this mark. And they are usually good ones!

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